The riots - one year on: 'We're not feral youths. We're just fighting to be heard'

A year after the riots, a charity in Salford and Manchester has launched a project to combat the growing demonisation of young people. Owen Jones concludes his series of special reports

Owen Jones
Thursday 26 July 2012 08:04
Sinead Andrews, 17: 'The only time I've bothered about politics is the cost of university. Nothing else in politics has made me stare at the telly and think, that matters to me'
Sinead Andrews, 17: 'The only time I've bothered about politics is the cost of university. Nothing else in politics has made me stare at the telly and think, that matters to me'

For those fighting the corner of young people in working-class communities, the backlash to last year's riots was a demoralising setback. "Feral youths" was bandied around in print and on the airwaves: the right-wing columnist Richard Littlejohn described rioters as a "wolfpack of feral inner-city waifs and strays" who needed to be clubbed "like baby seals." Those who called for politicians to engage with the underlying issues were often savaged as justifying "mindless" or "wanton criminality".

It was a backlash immediately felt by one charity that works with young people from some of the poorest areas of Greater Manchester. In the aftermath of riots in Salford and Manchester, the RECLAIM Project set up a new initiative, "RECLAIM Our Name" to combat the growing demonisation of young people. "We were trying to get young people into the arts, so we could use the spaces and the museums," says Sinead Andrews, a 17-year-old sixth-form student from a council estate in New Moston. "Then when the riots continued, we'd built loads of relationships and they broke down suddenly, so we had to go out there and 'reclaim our name'."

As Dominic White, a 21-year-old who works full-time at the charity, put it, the way young people are portrayed is "overwhelmingly negative. You don't really find it as for other groups. Perhaps the only group that's similar is Muslims, but there are huge Islamophobia projects to target it." As well as crushing self-esteem, Ebony Montague, the charity's 17-year-old artist-in-resident, argued the demonisation could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. "When the media portray young people as feral rats or as wasted youth, some people might see that and think – you know what, if they're going to portray me like that, I might as well as live up to the stereotype."

Ruth Ibegbuna, 36, the charity's Stockport-based director, remembers a broadsheet journalist cancelling an interview with six black boys from Moss Side because none of them had been involved in gangs or crime. "She said no-one wants to read nice stories about people doing nice things."

The charity's ethos is to recruit young people who have leadership potential but who have something holding them back. All the young people I spoke to are articulate, but they are also determined to do what many mainstream politicians have seemed reluctant to do: learn the lessons from the riots. And at the very heart of that is giving young people a voice – particularly those lacking the networks and resources of middle-class Britain.

"We're almost going back to this Victorian ideal of young people should be seen, and not heard," Ms Ibegbuna says. When authorities did supposedly listen to young people, she says, it is generally tokenistic. "I don't know how many times I have been asked to take young people to things which are dreary and dull just to tick off 'young person involvement'," she says. "The young person gets nothing from it. Their contribution is just smiling and patting them on their head." Rather than box-ticking listening exercises, both she and the young people she worked with wanted politicians to act on what they were told.

But the big challenge is overcoming growing disillusionment among young people with the entire political process. "For now, politics to us is everything that they're taking away from us," says Ms Andrews. "The only time I've bothered about politics is whether the EMA [Educational Maintenance Allowance] is going to be there, and the cost of university. Nothing else in politics has made me stare at the telly and think, that matters to me."

It is a huge disconnect that the charity is attempting to challenge. In each area of Greater Manchester, they assemble groups of 13-year-olds to create a manifesto for their local community. For example, East Bolton's manifesto says "Bolton does not accept racism" and "More youth centres and activities to keep youth away from bad influences"; "We're not bad, we're bored!" says Gorton's manifesto. The next six months after the exercise is spent building up to the objectives of each manifesto.

Rather than having projects run by adults, young people are encouraged to run initiatives themselves. Here is one possible template for a positive response to the riots. But for Mr White, there was a chance of giving rising anger a positive, political direction. "They weren't going to areas where social change could happen. They weren't storming Parliament. They were taking TVs and radios, breaking shop windows and taking food," he says.

"If these kind of things do bubble over and society does break down, your choices are either become political about it, or take what you can, smash and grab.

"If it does happen again, if we want it to happen in a more political way, we have to engage them in a political way." It is an approach shared by a group of young trade unionists in the city. Alex Halligan, 22, works for the TUC's Salford Unemployed Centre. "I come from a rough sort of working-class background, and unemployment has always been a big issue, for family and friends," he says. But trade unionism faces huge obstacles organising young working-class people: only just over 1 in 10 of workers in their early 20s are union members, and the high level of youth unemployment makes it difficult to organise.

In an attempt to tackle this growing trade union crisis, the Unite trade union has set up a community membership scheme. In part, it aims to organise the growing ranks of the young unemployed. "The practicalities of life as an unemployed person is very difficult, so organising unemployed people is a very difficult task," says Mr Halligan. They offer a range of services, such as defending benefit claimants in tribunals, advice on debt, and scrubbing up people's CVs and interview techniques. "Empowerment is the key," he says. "It's not going around bashing on doors looking for work and feeling inadequate. It's about being in an organisation with thousands of other members who are in the same boat, standing together." For Alex Ehrlich, 22, it is a new approach that gives him security at a time when work is scarce and transient. "Whatever happens, whether I'm sacked tomorrow, it means I've got someone watching my back," he says. "We've never had the opportunity to have that. I can get help."

As young people face a future of lower living standards than their parents for the first time since the Second World War, this model of organising has the potential to give rising anger a political direction, avoiding a repeat of the scenes of last summer.

"In Salford, it was like the community that was rioting, while in Manchester it was like gangs of 10 looting," says 22-year-old Jack Youd. "Young people are furious," says Mr Halligan. A few weeks ago, he heard two young men in Salford JobCentre darkly predicting "a f****** war if they kick us off our benefits like this." It is this fury that a new model of trade unionism could harness. "Organising won't cure it. But it will help give it direction."

Rather than falling back on knee-jerk condemnation, local politicians are looking to engage with what drove last summer's chaos. "The initial reaction was that it was wanton criminality and we should be cracking down on it and the people responsible," says Kevin Peel, a 28-year-old Labour councillor for Manchester City Centre. "What's come out since then is that it's a bit more complicated than that."

His colleague, 40-year-old Labour councillor Amina Lone, is director of the think tank Social Action and Research Foundation, which has just published a report on the riots calling for new investment in Manchester's poorest areas and a review of stop-and-search.

"In Salford, the biggest thing was about hating the police," she said. "And it was literally visceral hatred for the police, entrenched over many years." But, as well as agreeing about the need to abandon tokenistic "listening exercises", she said the middle-class take-over of politics had to be addressed. "I think one of the challenges is in government we've got increasingly professionalised politicians," she says, drawing on her own experience as a single mother-of-four from inner city Birmingham. "Where are the working-class representatives?"

The causes of last year's riots are undoubtedly as complex as they are contestable. But unless this lack of voices from outside the cosy confines of middle-class Britain is addressed, it is difficult to see how those issues will ever be properly tackled. As Jordan McGlacken, an 18-year-old aspiring musician and part-time charity worker, warns: "The first thing about the riots is that they're just the first – and there's going to be a lot more if things don't change."